Need a Lift, Young Man?

Winos, Dine-O's, and Ding-Bats (1971)

Wilson A. Barkman
Graphicopy Press

Apparently self-published account of author Barkman's fifteen years as a skid row alcoholic in the late '40s and 1950s.  After some preliminaries in which Barkman distinguishes social drinking from alcoholism, he begins his story with the moment his first wife packed-up and left home due to his uncontrolled binges--he never saw her again.  Soon after her departure, Barkman finds himself homeless and riding the rails to L.A. for a prolonged stay in the city's infamous skid row flophouse, The Emperor Hotel.  Individual chapters then take on such topics as "the female alcoholic," "greasy spoon" diners catering to "bums," religious charities, and dealing with libraries and librarians.  There is also an interesting account of the typical day in the life of a skid row drunk, with emphasis on the awful somatic symptoms of remaining intoxicated day after day.

Barkman realizes he's really hit rock bottom once he begins being plagued by a series of terrifying D.T. hallucinations, starting with a pack of vicious wild "chickens" that chase him through Central Park and into the detox ward at Bellevue.  Three months later the D.T.'s are back as are the hallucinations: a bear, purple vultures, a multi-colored warthog, and a taunting leprechaun.  Barkman decides he's had enough.  He hops the rails from New York to a clinic in Fort Worth and drys out.  Successfully, it would seem.

A blurb on the back, written by a friend of Barkman's, describes him in the present day (1971) as "the very essence of a conservative, Christian gentleman."  We also learn that before writing this autobiographical account of his time on skid row, Barkman had been working as a "ghost writer" for several "young local politicians" (in Dallas) and as a "nom de plume" contributor of "slush" to various "true love and romance" magazines.

Notes on "Orphans of the Storm"

During a recent raid on the Salvation Army, I found a copy of the photoplay edition of Orphans of the Storm, published by Grosset and Dunlap in 1923. The book is a "novelization" of the film directed by D.W. Griffith and starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish. As old books go, it's not really all that valuable (you can still get a decent copy for under $5 at Amazon).  But what makes this particular copy unique is a glowing, hand-written appreciation of the film on the book's opening endpage.  Given that these lines, written in blue pen, are signed and dated at the bottom of the page, perhaps this celebration of the film was inscribed as personal testimony before giving the book as a gift.  Then again, maybe the writer just wanted to write down his feelings about the movie for him/herself (unclear from the signature).  In any case, the complete inscription appears below as a service to silent film scholars, Griffith/Gish fans, and marginalia aficionados.


Pregnant Adultress

Bar Belles (1975)

Trisha Stevens
Pocket Books

Somewhere in a small town in a dry county in Dixie, there is a nightspot called "The Pussycat Club." The various women who work there personally deliver bottles of hootch to visiting businessmen in a nearby motel.  Sometimes they also engage in sexual activity with these businessmen, either for a "tip" or just because they want to.  The ladies like this set-up because it means they are not prostitutes in that they decide the nature of each transaction.  The mob, on the other hand, would prefer a more predictable and Fordist approach to this arrangement, constituting one strand of this novel.

Each "bar belle," by the way, receives her own chapter detailing how it is that she ended up in a small town in a dry county in Dixie delivering booze to horny businessmen.

In the other plot, XXX-filmmakers arrive on scene to make a porno with "local color."  They dupe various hypocritical southern types (the sheriff, the judge, etc) into believing it's a legitimate documentary, and then trick them in such a way that the final film makes them look really bad.

Reclining Spy

Thunder La Boom (1974)

Anne Steinhardt
Viking Adult

Despite a cover that suggests lady warriors about to do battle aboard mastodons in middle earth, this is in fact a novel about a strip club in San Jose.  The blurb describes it as a "California style" novel, which I think is 70's code for a relatively plotless series of episodes adding up to a larger sociocultural revelation.

Twenty-something Peter is hitching up the coast from Mexico after a failed reconciliation with his alcoholic lounge-singer Mom in Acapulco.  The thumb lottery lands him in a cheap motel in San Jose that comes with the job of doorman at Obie's, a scuzzy strip joint where the girls appear "topless and bottomless" rather than just simply "nude."  Once atop his stool outside the door, Peter tells us pretty much everything you would want to know about the strip club business in San Jose in the 1970s: how to spot cops; how the dancers hold beer trays to force tips; division of labor in the bar; strategies for musical accompaniment; the circuit of amateurs and agency talent, etc.  Eventually we focus on the life of Callie ("Thunder La Boom"), a 34-year-old mother of two who drives in from San Fransisco each day for her 6pm-2am shift.  Then it just gets sad. 

Steinhardt followed this book a couple years later with How to Get Balled in Berkeley, also under the "Viking Adult" imprint.

Backmasked Paperback

Screams All Around

House of Fury (1951)

Felice Swados
Avon Books
(Originally published as Reform School Girl [1948])

Despite the incidiary title (in both incarnations), this is actually a serious attempt at a social problem novel about "bad girls," obviously, but also and somewhat unexpectedly about mid-century segregation.  At a reform school for girls that seems to be somewhere in the American south, 18-year-old Bonnie watches over two cabins of African-American girls, segregated from the larger population of white girls supervised by 18-year-old "Jeff" (short for Jefferson).  Each day as the white girls go into the fields to pick cherries, apples, and other fruit, the African-American girls are assigned the much more unpleasant tasks of laundry, latrine duty, and general housekeeping.  The centerpiece of the story is a bid by two of the black girls, Bluebell and Orchid, to make their escape and find their way to the city--a trip filled with equal parts danger and degradation.  With the girls on the lamb, Bonnie and "Jeff" bond over their shared status as young women ruling over a world of volatile girls, a "forbidden" friendship that only increases racial tension in the school.  There is also the requisite tomboy with a profound "crush" on Jeff, a plot-line that resolves with a rather candid promise that the two will share an apartment once the younger girl finishes her stint in reform school.  Rumors, misunderstandings, and general delinquent tension lead to the equally requisite "riot" scene toward the end--prelude to the author's real motivation in the story's conclusion.  Jeff, herself a product of the school, finally decides the time has come to move on and enter the real world.  As she leaves for a promising job in the city, she makes eye contact one last time with Bonnie as she leads her girls to the laundry room for another day of back-breaking labor.  We are left with the realization that once "free," Bonnie will be doing pretty much the same thing on the outside.

Summer Hoarding Season on A&E


Good news for those who have an inordinate interest in symptomatic neurosis: Hoarders has returned for a fourth season on A&E.  Since its premiere in 2009, Hoarders has become a rather unexpected “hit” (at least in basic cable terms), introducing viewers to some 80 “hoarders” over 40 episodes.  “Hoarding” should be a self-evident condition, but if not, here’s the Mayo Clinic’s definition:

Hoarding is the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them. Hoarding often creates such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter. Some people also collect animals, keeping dozens or hundreds of pets often in unsanitary conditions.

The Clinic goes on to add that “hoarding” is sometimes but not always linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and that treatment for the condition can prove difficult in that individuals “often don’t see it as a problem.”

The Foucauldian and/or libertarian in you might be saying, “If so-called hoarders don’t perceive a problem, then why not just leave them alone?”  That would be fine, except the practice of hoarding typically leads to a confrontation with an institution that will not abide such behavior: neighbors complain about the junk in the yard; the courts threaten to take children away; landlords threaten to evict; spouses move-out; rats move in; and so on.  The A&E series usually starts each story at one of these crisis points, the moment when friends and family decide grandma can no longer be allowed to live buried underneath piles of ever expanding garbage (lest they have to take her in themselves).

"Hoarders" appear to come in two basic forms: 1). those who fixate on accumulating a particular item (dolls, plates, junked cars, animals, etc); and 2). those who manifestly refuse to allow any material object to exit the home (empty bottles, old newspapers, pizza boxes, etc).   The first type is the more rare and of interest precisely because the symptom is so specifically Freudian (why tea sets? Parrots? Cabbage Patch dolls?)  But the real meat of the series is the second type—those who have let a once pristine house or apartment devolve into abject squalor, not only “hoarding,” but abandoning any attempt to organize—much less utilize—any of their precious possessions.

A&E tries to pass off Hoarders as a “documentary” series, but do not be fooled—it trades in the very same class horrorshow as bottom-feeders like Cops.  The problem for most “hoarders” is not so much that they hoard things; rather, it is the lack of resources that prevents them from hoarding items in a more socially acceptable manner.  Jay Leno, for example, is by all accounts a disturbed hoarder of vintage automobiles.  Given that he has sufficient real estate to house the vehicles, however, no one seems poised to make an intervention.  If Jay collected vintage microwave ovens on his front yard in Encino, on the other hand, the Sheriff’s office would be there each week ticketing him for his socially and psychologically disturbed behavior.  

The “intervention” structure of the series flatters viewers into believing they are concerned for the psychological welfare and eventual recovery of each week’s hoarder—but in truth the primary attraction here is the anarchic spectacle of unchecked consumption and the ensuing cycle of obsolescence, decay, and contamination.  Perhaps this explains the unexpected popularity of the “hoarding” meme over the past three years (even Marge Simpson temporarily fell under its sway this past season).  As the economy contracts, severely impacting the lower middle-classes that Hoarders so frequently showcases each week, the series stages a surprisingly frank confrontation between a commodity life disrupted and a psychological life traumatized—something that now almost everyone can relate to in some fashion. 

Looking back from the other side of the economic meltdown, George W. Bush’s wartime advice to “keep on shopping” now seems even more pathetically desperate and sad—a “clap for Tinkerbell” strategy that could only succeed for so long.  Now that everything has gone to shit, the “hoarder” stands as a particularly tragic yet fascinating figure, an individual who makes the inevitably deteriorating cycle of consumption and happiness most explicit.  Some hoarders, like demented squirrels, have to bring some new “acorn” home everyday lest they feel intense psychic distress for not making an acquisition.  And, as the series loves to showcase repeatedly, once an object—no matter how insignificant and utterly disposable—is in the home, the prospect of removing it causes what is obviously an intense psychological crisis. In one episode, a therapist confronts a woman with hundreds of sweaters that have never been worn.  Following the fashion-industry’s rather self-serving advice that any item not worn in a year should be given away, the decluttering team attempts to persuade the woman to sell some of them at a garage sale.  But when the time comes to pick the actual sweaters to put on sale, the woman becomes anxious and distraught—her expression revealing a mental calculus equating “having” with happiness and security, “not having” with depression and vulnerability.  Given that other family members are threatening to walk unless the sweater problem comes under control, her pained and almost panicked reaction enacts Marx’s “commodity fetish” in most literal and poignant terms. Having the magical cloak of 500 sweaters seems more important than any human relationship within the house.

Hoarders intersects in an odd way with a major theme in the last few novels of J.G. Ballard.  Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006) are all essentially the same book—each trying to capture the post-millennial malaise of a western middle-class for the most part immune to scarcity and danger, bored to death in their suburban compounds, and half-heartedly invested in the last remaining erotics of contemporary life: cycles of sexy commodity consumption.  Millennium People is perhaps the most successful of the three novels, telling the story of a London psychologist slowly drawn into a middle-class terrorist cell operating out of the privileged neighborhoods of Chelsea.  The cell’s targets involve, not governmental or military sites, but rather those institutions that symbolize the politics of leisure: travel agencies, video stores, cat shows, etc.—disruptions staged in an effort to wake the slumbering middle-class from their insulating cocoon of unreflexive consumerism (in one chapter, a “terrorist” dons the garb of a social scientist/market researcher and goes door-to-door in a rich development asking homeowners survey questions specifically designed to make them uncomfortable about just how boring their lives have become).  The thesis that middle-class consumption replaced proletarian labor as the primary engine of capitalism in the twentieth-century is not necessarily original or unique, but appearing in 2003, right at the threshold of the global economic meltdown and the rise of the TV hoarder, Ballard’s novel seems—once again—eerily prescient.   

Perhaps these are the times we are living through: a disenchantment with commodity life attached to its future improbability.  All of which makes the “hoarder” all the more fascinating—an empathetic figure who believes if they just store enough shit in the house they might just get by (or better yet, find happiness), even as the continued storing of said shit in fact only makes them more miserable.  And hats off to A&E for designing a compelling advertising vehicle that hinges, for the most part, on our growing revulsion at spectacles of consumer alienation and dysfunction.

Squirrel Vortex

Media Archaeology

I have an article on media, psychosis, and the "influencing machine" in a new anthology edited by Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka.  Below is a description of the book and a full table of contents.

This book introduces an archaeological approach to the study of media - one that sifts through the evidence to learn how media were written about, used, designed, preserved, and sometimes discarded. Edited by Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, with contributions from internationally prominent scholars from Europe, North America, and Japan, the essays help us understand how the media that predate today’s interactive, digital forms were in their time contested, adopted and embedded in the everyday. Providing a broad overview of the many historical and theoretical facets of Media Archaeology as an emerging field, the book encourages discussion by presenting a full range of different voices. By revisiting ‘old’ or even ‘dead’ media, it provides a richer horizon for understanding ‘new’ media in their complex and often contradictory roles in contemporary society and culture.

1. Introduction: An Archaeology of Media Archaeology
Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka

Part I: Engines of/in the Imaginary

2. Dismantling the Fairy Engine: Media Archaeology as Topos Study
Erkki Huhtamo

3. On the Archaeology of Imaginary Media
Eric Kluitenberg

4. On the Origins of the Origins of the Influencing Machine
Jeffrey Sconce

5. Freud and the Technical Media: The Enduring Magic of the Wunderblock
Thomas Elsaesser

Part II: (Inter)facing Media

6. The “Baby Talkie,” Domestic Media, and the Japanese Modern
Machiko Kusahara

7. The Observer’s Dilemma: To Touch or Not to Touch
Wanda Strauven

8. The Game Player’s Duty: The User as the Gestalt of the Ports
Claus Pias

9. The Enduring Ephemeral, or The Future Is a Memory
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

Part III: Between Analogue and Digital

10. Erased Dots and Rotten Dashes, or How to Wire Your Head for a Preservation
Paul DeMarinis

11. Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media
Wolfgang Ernst

12. Mapping Noise: Techniques and Tactics of Irregularities, Interception, and Disturbance
Jussi Parikka

13. Objects of Our Affection: How Object Orientation Made Computers a Medium
Casey Alt

14. Digital Media Archaeology: Interpreting Computational Processes
Noah Wardrip-Fruin

15. Afterword: Media Archaeology and Re-presencing the Past
Vivian Sobchack

Annabelle Starr, E.S.P. (1983)

Lila Perl
Archway Paperback

In a depressing small town in upstate New York, Annabelle lives with her grandparents and a little brother they adopted to keep Annabelle company after her parents died in a car wreck.  Annabelle thinks she has ESP because one day all the answers to a quiz about the Panama Canal came to her magically, even though she didn't study for the test.  One day a woman from the city, Lauren, comes to the town and rents a room in Annabelle's house, a room conveniently situated all alone in the home's gothic turret.  Annabelle thinks there's something weird about Lauren and becomes convinced she's actually her little brother's biological mother, come to spy on or maybe even kidnap him.  She engages in a little spying of her own, leading to a Rear Windowish moment when Annabelle and her best friend find themselves trapped in the rented room just when the mysterious border returns.  Eventually Annabelle's theories begin to freak-out her brother, who in an attempt to evade the scary possibility of the returning birth-mom runs out into an interstate and almost gets hit by a truck.  But it turns out Lauren isn't the boy's mother, it's just that she had a son of her own that died at the age of 4 who looked a lot like the Annabelle's little brother.  There is some dating issues on the side.

Nothing to Lose (1963)

Kimberly Kemp
Midwood Books

As we open, college senior Tammy Townsend is posing for pictures in the basement of a fraternity house.  After taking some rather innocent snaps, the fratographers ask if they can do some photos "like in the detective magazines," which means Tammy + lingerie, ropes, and fake blood.  Tammy says yes, but once she's down to her skivvies, she starts to have second thoughts.  But the two frat guys are determined to get some good sex-crime shots they can sell, and so they tie her to a table and let the shutters fly.  And Tammy...Tammy likes it!

Later, with her clothes back on, Tammy joins her art professor, Norman, on a field trip to the nearby small town of Grey Gulch.  The plan is to expose the local yokels to "great art," much of which includes paintings of nekkid woman.  The Dean tells Norman this isn't a good idea, as the citizens of Grey Gulch are renowned for being backwards and prudish, but of course this makes Norman even more determined to make them look at nudes lounging on couches and eating grapes.  It's for their own good!

Sure enough, once the show goes up in the local high school, community elders make it known that they don't want their kids looking at nudie pictures.  Shouts and threats go back and forth and the high school is put under lockdown for the night.  Tammy has a key, though, so later that night she comes back by herself to contemplate the art and ponder why the locals would find it so offensive.  This proves a bad idea, however, as Tammy is abducted and sexually assaulted by drunken members of the high school football team.

For reasons that I can't entirely recall at this point, Tammy's assault somehow lands Tammy in the jailhouse.  Her cellmate for the night is the "town whore," Francine, who does her best to console the despairing co-ed.  One thing leads to another, and before you know it, Tammy understands why she has felt "confused" around boys her whole life.  Tammy is a lesbian.

Bailed out the next day, Tammy returns to campus with Norman.  The Dean lectures them both for getting the school into all this turmoil.  He fires Norman and expels Tammy.  This is most unfair, especially to Tammy, but no one makes much of a fuss because in the next chapter...

Tammy and Norman now have an apartment in New York City and live as platonic roommates.  That's fine with Tammy, as she is still pining for her night of bliss with Francine.  Norman, on the other hand, is less than thrilled with the arrangements.

Life in New York isn't cheap, so Tammy soon has to hit the bricks in search of a job.  Seeing an ad for "new models," she shows up in her best outfit and makes a good first impression with Sharon, a former model and head of the agency.  Sharon, Tammy notes with pleasure, is even more luscious than Francine, and she wonders if the attraction is mutual.

Tammy's first modeling job is wearing leather wading boots for a kindly old photographer named Otto, who instantly takes a paternalistic interest in the young girl. He tells her to get out of the business before she "goes bad." 

It isn't long, of course, until Tammy discovers that Sharon does indeed share her attraction, and soon she's moving out of Norman's apartment and shacking up with Sharon full-time.  Sharon, meanwhile, sends Tammy to increasingly "depraved" modeling assignments, culminating in an attempt to trick her into starring in a porno film with...a man!  Luckily, just as Tammy is about to be forced into a sex scene with the male actor, who should show up but an outraged Norman.  He has spent days trying to track down Tammy in her "secret" modeling career, and now that he's discovered what she's up to, he's disgusted.  He calls her a dirty slut and storms out of the studio in anger. 

With this, Tammy decides she's sick of being Sharon's bottom-porno-bitch, and so she decides to hatch a revenge plot.  Consulting with Otto, she arranges for the police to raid a big sex party hosted by Sharon and her perverted filmmaker friends.  She also breaks into Sharon's office and steals a batch of incriminating photos that Sharon has used to blackmail Otto into remaining a "sleaze" photographer rather than becoming a legitimate artist, which he most surely is.

With Sharon busted and Otto liberated, Tammy relishes her escape from the clutches of New York's "modeling" circuit.  She's now going to work with Otto in setting up his new, "artistic," and totally legit photo business.  And Otto has a surprise.  He's hired a talented new assistant to work with him in the studio.  It's Norman!  Apologies and kisses--lesbian threat defeated.  Art, sex, and commerce all put into "appropriate" balance.  The end.

Poorly Staged Country Music Props

Campus Gods on Trial (1953)

Chad Walsh
Macmillan

Presbyterian theologian's modest attempt to correct the damage done to students on college campuses in relation to God.  According to Walsh, most kids (circa 1950) grow up either with the "fiery furnace" or "lukewarm bath" approach to religion (i.e. "burn in hell" or "take it or leave it").  Thus, when they get to college, the social cocoon offered by the Greek system allows them to experiment with drinking, petting, and general "carousing" (a great word, that) because they have a sanctioned place to "rebel" with little to no consequences.  College students are also confronted with the horrors of relativism, a point Walsh drives home by describing seven different professors from seven different disciplines explaining the causes of warfare.  The "Campus Gods" on trial here are various "isms:"  scientism, relativism, communism, etc.  Throughout the study, Walsh offers the transcribed comments of college students expressing their skepticism about Christianity and does his best to refute what he can.  When challenged by one student, for example, over the Christian claim that all Buddhists will burn in hell even if they've never heard of Christ, Walsh agrees that seems pretty unreasonable.  He then argues that Christ can enter the heart of even a Buddhist in His own way and thus "save" the exotic and far-flung.  But this opens Walsh to another question:  then why should anyone take it upon him or herself to evangelize for Christ anywhere?  Walsh likens this to having penicillin yet withholding it from someone with a bad infection (like Buddhism).  Yes, they might "recover" on their own, but it would be sinful to deny them access to the medication.  And so on.

Walsh acknowledges also that many universities do have "Religious Studies" departments, but argues these are usually staffed by secularists in disguise who do little to address the spiritual concerns of college youth in crisis.

Bitchcraft

Harlequin 2133

The Surprise Party Complex (1963)

Ramona Stewart
Pocket Books (6214)

Novelists have been trying to capture the "vibe" of Hollywood for almost a century now.  These novels might be divided thusly: 1). those that focus on the perceived glamor of Sunset, Hollywood, Wilshire and the other famous boulevards associated with the film industry; and 2).  those that focus on the lesser known and more seedy surface streets that run north to south.  The first books are about real or would-be "stars," the second are about the endless legions of transient populations that move in and out of the many faux-Spanish apartment complexes between Hollywood and Santa Monica boulevards.

The Surprise Party Complex is most definitely from the second category, focusing on three teenagers thrown together for a few months in a "Norman castle" made of stucco just off Hollywood.  Pauline and her once rich now deadbeat dad arrive in town with no money, sell the car, and try to survive until dad (who goes by the name, "O.K.") can round-up some investors in a promising silver mine up north.  Pauline, 15, first meets the daughter of the apartment's manager, "Chris," who spends her days listening to police scanners, reading detective magazines, and learning martial arts.  Whether Chris knows it or not yet, author Stewart certainly has her pegged as a young lesbian--mortified when her mother reminisces about boy-girl courtship practices in Kansas and unable to stay comfortably in a dress for more than 30 minutes at a time.  Pauline and Chris never really have anything in common, but do start to hang out on the roof of the apartment out of boredom.  Eventually a slightly older boy, Jaime, completes the trio and turns out to have the most troubles of all.  The story unfolds around Pauline's gradual realization that both her father and Jaime are putting up a brave front against past and future disappointments.

Despite the slightly sexy California cover and the emphasis on adolescent innocence, The Surprise Party Complex ends up being as much about the variously dysfunctional single parents of the three kids.  O.K. and his endless schemes to get his money back--Chris' hyperfemme mom who, when not lecturing her daughter to be more ladylike, is out cruising the local bars for "companionship"--and Jaime's mom, who was either a stripper, prostitute, or madam in St. Louis, and now spends her days in bed drinking champagne and popping downers.

All in all a nice surprise in the adolescent disillusionment genre.  There isn't much information on Ramona Stewart out there.  Two of her books made it to the screen, Desert Fury (1947--based on her book Desert Town) and The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972).  In his book Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris notes that Peter Nelson, a screenwriter considered for work on The Graduate, attracted attention because of his spec script for The Surprise Party Complex--but the book does not appear to have ever been filmed.

Clowngasm

South Park: Either/Or

If you've fallen out of the habit of watching South Park (and no one would blame you--it's been on the air now for a somewhat unbelievable 15 seasons), you really owe it to yourself to check out this week's mid-season finale, "You're Getting Old." Don't be fooled by Comedy Central's typical misdirect in the promos (which pitches the episode as another fart-filled satire on pop-music trends--in this case a mythical "tween wave" explosion sweeping the nation).  The episode is much more interesting than that, ending with a moment of genuine melancholy that has many pop-pundits and fans speculating the series either has or will very soon come to an end.  Technically Parker and Stone owe the network 6 more episodes before their current contract is up, but who's to say they might not pull a Chappelle and simply walk away.  It would be a great and completely appropriate ending, closing the series in a genuinely thoughtful way and--in keeping with their often antagonistic relationship to their employers--denying CC the opportunity to do a month of hype in anticipation of an announced series finale.

Why did this week's episode surprise so many long-time viewers?  Mainly because of some rather significant transgressions of format, cues that this was meant to be, dare I say it, a "very special" episode.  The story opens with a party for Stan's tenth birthday, thus puncturing the "timeless" oblivion so crucial to episodic television, and in particular the contemporary animated progeny of The Simpsons.  Actually, South Park did make a gesture toward this earlier in the run by having the boys advance a grade at school (most likely to punch up the classroom aspects of the series).  Stan reaching the ripe old age of 10, however, signals something more definitive, especially in that his move into double-digits brings with it a genuinely troubling philosophical crisis.  Stan notices that the "tween wave" music that he once loved (and that Kenny, Cartman, and Kyle continue to idolize) now sounds like shits and farts.  Later, at the doctor's office, he is unable to distinguish between a movie poster for the new Kevin James' film and a picture of a re-heated turd in a microwave.  Just as 99.99% of South Park's viewers are identifying with the beauty, classicism, and necessity of this gag, the doctor has bad news for Stan (and the viewer): he has become a "cynical asshole."

For the middle-block, Stan becomes a surrogate for any and all who have ever felt themselves to be living in cultural exile.  Everything looks, sounds, and tastes like shit to Stan, evoking an endless litany of complaints over how crappy, predictable, and generally awful everything has become.  Stan's cynicism is so unchecked, in fact, that the other three boys begin to avoid him--they want to retain the ability to enjoy the new Adam Sandler movie or Jim Carey in Mr. Popper's Penguins as actual entertainment.  In the "B" plot, meanwhile, Stan's parents, Randy and Sharon, are involved in another huge fight (ostensibly over Randy's purported love of "tween wave").  All of this leads to the episode's wholly unexpected and surprisingly poignant close--an extended montage of the Marsh family dissolving set to Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." Yes, the show that once depicted Stevie Nicks as a braying goat here uses her signature ballad without a shred of irony, acknowledging (at least it would seem) that the song actually does possess some degree of beauty and wisdom.

Well, I've been afraid of changing
'Cause I've built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Children get older
I'm getting older too


It may seem corny and improbable, but it's a beautiful moment of television, even more powerful because it's so thoroughly unexpected given the show's reputation and history.  It's also a complicated gesture, one that reaffirms that pop culture can be every bit as allusive and complicated as "high" literature and art.  Some are interpreting the ending as Parker and Stone's personal realization that its time to move on, that they can't go into their forties and fifties still making fart jokes and simply ripping on each month's current pop outrage.  Then again, the very premise of the episode suggests that such cynicism is an inevitable product of age (part of the effect here is the sense that after this episode, it's hard to imagine how Stan can simply go back to being the Stan of old).

Here the question becomes positively Kierkegaardian: how does one share the world with Kevin James?  Is it pathetic, sad, and futile to continue struggling against a world that gives us such a steady diet of reheated turds in the form of Kevin James' movies, or should one simply acknowledge that Kevin James (and others like him) are never going away, and so you might as well turn your attention to something more productive in life?  Either way, it's a diabolical dilemma, sort of a pop-consumer version of the "red pill/blue pill" choice offered Neo in The Matrix.  As they now get older, what will South Park and its audience of veteran ironicists do?  Continue with a critical-political position of bitter disaffection from the mainstream of American culture, or make some attempt to change it through strategies other than reflexive negation?

If nothing else, it certainly raises the stakes on The Book of Mormon, Parker and Stone's soon to officially open Broadway production, and by all accounts a surprisingly empathetic account of religion and faith in general (and again, as with Nicks, based on a previous target of merciless ridicule).  Is this the end of irony and a shift to the ethical life?  The next six episodes (if they happen) should be very interesting.

Chipmunks in Love

Abandoned Photo

Photograph found on the sidewalk.
Neatly ripped in half.
Rescued and scanned so that it can now be equally lost in digital form.

The Stonehedge Slaves (1969)

Gardner F. Fox
Belmont Books

Post-Mandingo miscegenation smut written by, somewhat incredibly, one of the major figures in the history of D.C. comics.  Before joining in the appalling S/M trade in slave lust, Fox created the Sandman and Hawkman, wrote the first three issues of Flash, and gave Batman his famous utility belt and "batarang." He was also a  prolific contributor to various pulp magazines of the era.  In the 1960s  he moved on to writing popular novels and produced nearly one a year until his death in 1986.

Fox mostly stocked the sci-fi and horror shelves, so who can say what inspired him to jump on the Antebellum sex-plantation circuit (other than $$$ of course).  As for the novel itself, we open with virginal slave girl "Delilah" seeking out "Mama Loa" in the dark of the Louisanna night.  Melissa Stone, the current plantation master at Stonehedge, has slated Delilah for public impregnation by "that Cass man," the plantation's largest and most virile slave.  Despite obtaining an amulet from Mama Loa to ward off her rendez-vous with Cass, Delilah soon finds herself as the main attraction at one of Miss Stone's decadent parties.  Every time a virgin needs studdin', it seems, Miss Stone invites over all her kinky weird white neighbors to watch, most of whom read as if they were Truman Capotes' great-grandparents.

Just as the big night is about to begin, however, who should return from his extended trip in Europe but Randolph Stone, Melissa's older brother and the rightful heir to the Stonehedge fortune.  He quickly puts a stop to the sex show, and in quick order makes Delilah his own personal "body servant" (which means she has to take care of his shirts and have sex with him in the bathtub).  He also demotes Cass from his coveted stud position and replaces him with the younger and stronger Mark Anthony.  There's going to be some changes (and trouble) at Stonehedge, clearly.

Sister Melissa and Cass are less than happy with the new arrangements, and the rest of the book chronicles their attempts to reclaim their former positions on the Dixie live-sex-show circuit.  To get back at brother Randolph, Melissa must of course take her own personal African body servant (thus fulfilling the primary generic demand of these novels--the Buck as willing/unwilling sex-toy for the rich white lady).  When Randolph finds out, he is of course outraged, fulfilling a second generic demand of miscegenation smut--the hypocrisy of white guys sleeping with the forced labor who find it abominable that a white woman might do the same.  And then: Randolph orders Mark Anthony to castrate Cass (for trying to kill him), a jealous slave kills Melissa with poison, and Randolph meets a respectable rich white girl in New Orleans and decides to sell off the quarrelsome and increasingly promiscuous Delilah.  In a particularly offensive ending, Randolph then grants the loyal Mark Anthony his freedom, but Anthony is terrified at the thought of leaving Stonehedge ("I a slave, masta," he pleads).  Randolph opines that everyone--black or white--is a "slave" to something--liquor, sex, power, etc., ignoring of course that the power relations involved in actual slavery are somewhat different than those in lust and the demon drink.

Like the genre itself, utterly slimy and sleazy.  Would be greatly improved, both politically and aesthetically, by the sudden and unexpected appearance of a Hawk, Sand, or Bat Man.

Sexy Hollerith Card

The Conservative Unimagination

Move over James O'Keefe of dressing up like a pimp, editing out-of-context, and destroying ACORN  fame, there's a new right-wing whippersnapper making the rounds on the TV and Internet and he's got a bold, new, and breathtaking thesis: "The media is dominated by liberals."  Old news, you say, as you hose down the deer guts off your F150--everyone knows that Fox and Limbaugh are the only trusted sources for news.  But wait!  This new kid, Ben Shapiro, has just enough edge on the tools in his critical toolbox to realize that it isn't just the news that's biased--so too is the alleged "entertainment" programming on network primetime.  Ben even got some well-known Hollywood liberal types to admit as much--openly, unabashedly, and without bursting into flames!

Like Disney films and crop rotation, every seven years or so an intrepid conservative makes this discovery all over again for a new generation (or more cynically, a hack realizes it's been six years since the last "liberals are using TV to force me into having an abortion and/or feeling sympathy for the poor" book).  Contracts are signed.  Anecdotes are gathered.  Lube up and let the Fox daisy-chain begin anew!

From his web graphics, Ben looks like a nice enough young man.  And he's got the Constitution unfurling behind him, so you know he understands what America's all about--especially in terms of the founder's "original intent" as to the true principles that should be guiding the network up-fronts.  True, knowing as we do now that conservatism appears to be linked to a "fear" gene, it's always sad to see someone so young already aspiring to the value system of a fifty-something executive worried the city might build public housing near his country club, but the kid seems earnest enough, like he's really on to a big discovery of some kind.  So assuming he isn't just cynically exploiting the tragically pre-sold market for this Chicken Littleshit, let's review (sigh...once again) the basic arguments:

*Hollywood is dominated by liberals.   Yes.  Check.  Absolutely.  You see, Ben, most of the people in Hollywood--even the most calculatingly bloodless producer types--consider themselves to be involved in the Arts.  I know that may seem incredible when talking about CSI or The Big Bang Theory, but it's true.  And most of the people who are willing to take the time, effort, and trouble to forge a career in the Arts are liberals.  Ben, think back a couple years to your High School, and more specifically to the "Theater kids"...did you have much luck convincing them that John McCain had their best interests at heart?  As they traded bottles of magenta hair dye and smoked joints in the bathroom, were they less than attentive to your pleas for a flat-tax and the virtues of traditional marriage? 

The writing staffs of most sitcoms, meanwhile, are dominated by whip smart, clever, witty arts/humanities majors from top universities.  After college, they move to Los Angeles and live 3 to an apartment in the city's less scenic outskirts, hustling to sell a script or get signed onto a show.  That process can take months or even years, and even when it does happen, there is zero job security.  Who else would fit this profile other than a starry-eyed liberal, someone who is so blinded by the romance of art, culture, and self-expression that they would willingly forgo a decent income, stable personal relationships, and a Bosch kitchen for a shot at punching up the dialogue on a David Spade movie? 

The truly smart kids, like yourself Ben, all get MBAs and Law Degrees so that they can buy, sell, sue, and control foolish liberals at will.  Don't believe me?  Just watch a young liberal artiste trying to buy a car, negotiate a mortgage, or do his or her taxes.  It's not a pretty sight, Ben, because conservatives have forged an entire world designed to fleece the romantic, flaky, artistic and otherwise easily distracted of their time, money, and sanity.  You may be mad that TV doesn't show more people bitching about Obamacare--but compare that to the stress of having no health insurance and driving a ten-year old Hyundai around Burbank trying to get a meeting for a "can't lose" retro-eighties Bro-mance, based on a forgotten side-plot of Moby Dick that you wrote an essay about back at Brown.

*Hollywood discriminates against conservatives.  We've already established above that there just aren't really all that many conservatives clamouring to work in show biz -- the ones that are, moreover, no doubt suffer from various forms of shame and self-loathing (it's hard, after all, to be so completely surrounded by the compassion, wisdom, and basic good sense of liberalism without eventually converting--we warned you thirty years ago the U.S. was poised to collapse under the weight of mindless consumerism, widening class divisions, selfish materialism, and environmental disaster.  You do remember those conversations, don't you?  Not you, Ben, I realize you've learned most of your conservatism by seeing how Fox makes it look like a really cool family that has all the answers in a scary world).

Shapiro finds it outrageous that Dwight Schultz, who played the crazy guy on The A-Team, hasn't worked much since the show went off the air in 1987.  This lack of work is purportedly a function of Schultz's conservative political views.  I'll be the first to concede that we haven't seen much of Mr. Schultz since 1987.  Then again, there are many hundreds of actors with "liberal" political views who, like Schultz, had their one turn at TV fame and then never worked again--that's how television generally works.  For every raving communist like Tom Selleck who somehow finds a new TV job with each new TV decade, there are thousands who would kill for their one shot at A-Team residuals so they could retire to Ojai and open a pottery shop.  And quite frankly, looking back at Mr. Schultz's complex and nuanced portrayal of "Howlin' Mad" Murdock, should he really expect a long line of producers and directors knocking at his door to employ his singular talents?  Was he hoping for the lead in a PBS adaptation of The Fountainhead?  (and before you feel too bad for Mr. S., he eventually got a gig playing Reginald Barclay on Star Trek: Next Generation--the single most in-your-face liberal show ever to be conceived by the human brain, a show so appallingly Utopian in its leftist politics that it even embarrasses many liberals.  Meanwhile, do you think the folks over at the 700 Club are actively interviewing secular atheists in the service of diversity and expanded perspectives?  No, they are not.)

Perhaps conservatives feel discriminated against in Hollywood because show biz doesn't really follow their expectations for how one lands work.  Connections can help in Hollywood, for example, but not to the same extent that they matter in the land of conservatism.  Knowing someone might get you an internship at a studio for a few months, or in rare cases a starring role in Beverly Hills 90210 (where the very premise of the show somehow made such slimy nepotism okay)-- but it's certainly not going to get a C-student into Yale or a dimwitted nephew into middle-management at Bank of America.  Drop Jon Cryer's latte three times and you're a marked man or woman, demoted without ceremony back to the Warner Brothers copy room.  Screw over a hundred thousand people with bad housing loans from your dad's bank?  Take a vacation, son, and when you come back we'll put you in charge of corporate real estate. 

Another reason Hollywood tends to depend on cultural producers from the Left is that they have more talent.  I'm sorry to have to say this so bluntly, but it's true.  Given that "conservatism" is at heart an ideology that believes in moral absolutes and unquestioning subservience to authority (unless it's black and from Hawaii), it does not really lend itself to powerful dramaturgy or empathetic comedy.  Which is the better outline for Les Miserables:  Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children and spends 19 years either on the run or in jail for his "crime," thereby demonstrating the horrifying ironies of man's "law," prejudice, and social corruption; or, Jean Valjean is a thief and suffers the appropriate penalties for his defiance?  Which strikes you as a better sitcom premise: four to six young singles negotiate the uncertain world of relationships and professional life in a big city full of new ideas and experimental possibilities; or, Jack unquestioningly marries his high school sweetheart right after graduation and they reproduce without incident? 

The "left" has just about every significant writer and philosopher of the past two centuries.  The right has Ayn Rand, who misread Nietzsche and then wrote some truly dreadful novels painfully elaborating on that fundamental misreading.

*Hollywood inserts "secret messages" supporting the Left: 

Here's the kind of thing that gets right-wingers like Shapiro all hot under their starchy collars:  Remember on Friends, way back in 1996, when they had that lesbian wedding?   The "minister," if we can call her that, was played by none other than Candace Gingrich, the openly gay sister of right-wing idiologue Newt Gingrich.  God damn, that chaps my homophobic hide!   How dare the producers of a network sitcom insert a liberal "in-joke" recognizable only to those who already support gay marriage (i.e. if you know who Candace Gingrich is, or even more to the point, could pick her out of a police line-up, I would say the odds are 99 to 1 you support gay marriage).  This is particularly outrageous considering that her poor brother Newt has almost no recourse to a public forum of any kind to tell us why his sister shouldn't have the right to marry whomever she chooses.

Imagine, liberals, if the producers of 24 had cast Ted Nugent as Jack Bauer's munitions consultant, you would have been madder than a wet-yet-still-pansy-assed hornet!

Speaking of Ted Nugent, who's going to give me back all the brain cells I destroyed as a teen listening to and memorizing such nuggets of conservative wisdom as:


Wang Dang Sweet Poontang!  
Beat me, beat me, come on and eat me!
Got you in a stranglehold now baby, then i crushed your face!


And this gets to the political right's saddest misunderstanding about both the media and the world.  They really do seem to think that every object and/or person is 100% pure in terms of its politics.  You're either with us--completely and totally--or you're agin' us.   Friends has a lesbian wedding with Candace Gingrich and is thus a "left-wing" show, 24 beats up people for timely information and is thus from the right-wing.  Never mind that all culture is infinitely more complex, ambivalent, confused, and contradictory than that (well, maybe more so from always questioning lefties than "God said it. I believe it. That settles it" conservatism).

Yes, Glee is a homofriendly propaganda machine designed to make future generations less uptight about issues of sexual orientation (a long-running and extremely successful project of Leftist entertainment, I might add.  Note to cantankerous old farts upset about all the gays on the TV and radio: your children and grand-children are waiting for you to die.  Nothing personal, but truly you are the glue gunking up the progressive gears of future liberty and justice).  But Glee also encourages me to believe that I can find true self-expression by obediently consuming and celebrating the marketplace's canon of corporately-crafted pop songs about the joys of love, fun, and "being yourself."  So its politics are a 50/50 proposition at best. 

But even the right is more confused than they know.  I mean, just look at that picture of the Nuge above:  He's wearing the chosen emblem of poor, disaffected, rural whites who imagine they somehow share something of the Frontier spirit with Native Americans, when in fact their own ancestors drove these tribes out of Dixie so that African-Americans could be brought in as a slave labor force--all of these injustices enforced under the threat of very real violence (i.e. guns).  What is the Nuge trying to tell us in this hostile hot mess?  Good ole boys and Injuns unite to kill the liberal elites?  Stay vigilant my cracker friends, I done heard Obama wants to repatriate the Cherokee back to Georgia?  The Indians are going to "rise again," better armed, and burn Alabama to the ground?  Red man or white, we can all agree that freshly-killed raccoon meat is delicious?  Who can tell what is going on in the complexities of the Nugent mind?

Let's conclude with an offer to Ben and all the other conservatives upset that liberals are "brainwashing" them through movies and TV.

Conservatives: pick any five of the top ten shows currently on TV and you can replace the entire writing and directing staff with bonafide right-wingers.  Glee, Modern Family, House...whatever gets your goat.  In exchange, liberals get to pick any five of the top ten companies on the Fortune 500 and replace the CEO and Board of Directors with bonafide left-wingers.

Let's check back in a year and see who had the opportunity to have the most impact on the political life of the nation and world.